Jacob Baytelman - CTO, mentor, blogger
Safety and security
The best fight is the one
you managed to avoid
These days I have a pleasure and honour to be working on a project
for safety in crowded places
but my personal story of making safety precautions an integral part of my life started about
30 years ago, shortly after the accident at Chernobyl nuclear
power plant. My native city accepted refugees from Chernobyl area, some of them became my new classmates
and told me in detail all they had seen.
For the first time in my life I learned about emergency response to a disaster or catastrophe:
what the authorities and ordinary people had done vs what the news were reporting vs what instructions
stated. By the way, a great number of training alerts through all
the country followed that terrible accident, my parents were given gas masks at their offices,
instructions for the population
were distributed to our post boxes and regularly broadcasted on TV. I remember,
some of them required the tenants of our house to arrange a kind of a bunker in the
basement. Of course, nobody actually bothered, but as a child I could not understand
that "stupid negligence".
Many years had passed since then, I moved to Israel. In the beginning of the new millenium
my son was born and I received gas masks for all the family including a special model for
the baby. Instructions for population were provided too. Some time later the country faced a threat
of rocket attacks, corresponding instructions followed. Unfortunately we had some chances to practice those
instructions in the real life, so we do know the drill now quite well.
In more peaceful days we got used to regular inspections of our bags and car boots each time
we enter a shopping mall or a train station or any other public place. I am explaining all
that just to give you a perspective of my entire life "on alert". Constantly. Everywhere.
As soon as I enter a new place I find myself examining the territory almost subconsciously:
my eyes are scanning for suspicious objects or people, unattended bags, emergency exits, etc.
Being always a bit "on alert" has become my normal lifestyle. Just a little bit more than
necessary. It is simple and easy, but it can save lives.
Once I went to a supermarket in Ukraine to grab quickly 2 or 3 items on my list. All of a sudden
I heard a fire syren, then a voice warning demanded to leave the building
immediately. Surprisingly, many people simply neglected it and continued shopping.
All those queuing at the cash desks did not even think to move. People with children were
absolutely calm and paid no attention to the warning. I came up to a guy with a little girl
and told him to go out. He asked whether I was serious. I did the same with three or four
other families with children. They all asked me if I indeed thought it was necessary.
Hey guys, what else do you expect when you hear a fire warning?
Do you want to see flames and smoke to realize the danger?
Then I approached a security guy at the entrance and suggested to stop letting people in.
He asked me why. The warning was to leave the building, not to stop entering it! It might have
been a funny story about a software developer
who literally executes his wife's instructions.
But it is not, because it is about the life and death. I could not know whether it was a big fire or
whether it was a minor accident or even a failure in the alarm system. But for the sake of
your own safety and safety of your children, would you really want to stay and check it
personally? Those people seemed to do.
We deal with complex systems every day. The truth is that many objects around us are
such complex systems: our cars, public transportation, shopping malls, etc. Any complex
system has a sort of multi-segment chain of foolproof protection. That is how they are built.
For example: in your car there are 2 mechanisms for keeping it stationary: the low gear and the hand brake.
Your car will be completely motionless if you park it even on a slope and either leave the stick
in the low gear (or the automatic transmission in the "parking" position) or engage
the hand brake (assuming it is in order). Most of us do both, just to be on the safe side. But some
go even further and turn the steering wheel in the direction of the sidewalk, so even if
the first 2 options fail (very unlikely though) and the car starts moving, it will stop as soon
as the front wheel touches the curb. Exceptional safety freaks can take it to the extreme
and put a stone under the wheels.
This example explains how a failure of one segment of a chain in a complex system can be
compensated by normal functionality of other segments. Disasters happen when more that one
A fire in the trade center in Kemerovo (Russia) caused many deaths. 2 segments of the fire
protection system failed there: the doors of the cinema on the upper floor were blocked and
people could not get out, that was the first segment. The alarm system did not work (or was
turned off because somebody thought a false alert had caused the annoying noise), that was the
second failed segment. If any of these two functioned correctly, the tragedy might have been
avoidable. The alarm could be heard and thus people outside would have come to rescue the blocked;
or no one would have been blocked at all.
Very often our own negligence is such a failed segment. In other words, our over-precautious
behaviour could create an extra segment as a supplement to any system. In 99.9% of cases it is as useless
as airbags in your car, but in an extremely rare 0.1% it can save your life. The problem is that you
cannot know in advance when and where you get into that rare 0.1%.
To be continued.